E.J. Potter (1941 - 2012)
One of the bikes that visitors to the 2016 Goodwood Festival of Speed gazed at in awestruck near-disbelief was the V8 Chevrolet-powered monster known as the Widowmaker that had been ridden by one E.J. Potter (aka The Michigan Madman) on dragstrips around the USA in the 1960s. He also made one brief but memorable visit to England’s Santa Pod Raceway – of which, more later.
Elon Jack Potter was born on April 24, 1941, one of four children of Howard and Sheila Potter, who owned a small farm and a honeybee business near Ithaca in the state of Michigan on the Midwestern plains of the USA. The concept of his iconic ‘Widowmaker’ was born during high school. That was when E.J., a bespectacled farm boy daydreaming at his desk, got the idea stuck in his head that a Chevy V8 engine looked like a Harley V-twin motor if you only looked at the end view. It was just longer or, in the case of his subsequent creation, wider – a whole lot wider!
The young E.J. with his first V8 bike in the 'fifties. A pre-war Harley with girder forks.
Finally following through with that reasoning in 1960, Potter used a Harley frame as the basis of his first bike. That bike would evolve into his drag strip act and his ticket to international notoriety. The Michigan Madman, a legend of the American drag strip who earned his nickname and his living riding 170 miles per hour on the Widowmaker and who later went nearly 200mph on a three-wheel bike powered by a jet turbine engine from a helicopter.
Potter built his own centrifugal clutch for the first Widowmaker V8, using Harley-Davidson brake parts and a drive sprocket taken from a combine harvester that was on his father’s farm. After a couple of failures, Potter had the machine set up where it would run about 115 mph by the end of a quarter-mile drag strip. The problem was that the clutch system limited the bike to that speed. And as E.J. initially performed on the basis of the drag race promoters paying him a dollar for every mph he achieved over 100mph, the clutch was limiting more than the bike’s terminal speed. It was severely limiting his potential income, so it would have to go!
The only problem presented by switching to a direct drive between the engine and the rear wheel (by a massive chain from an agricultural machine) was that of getting the bike off the start line. Potter came up with a simple and pragmatic solution. He would bring the bike to the line and haul the beast up on to its rear wheel stand so that the wheel was off the ground. Then he would fire up the V8 and get it up to about 7,000rpm with the wheel spinning furiously. When the green light came on to give him the ‘go’ signal he would simply ease the bike off the stand, the wildly spinning rear wheel would hit the tarmac and the ‘Michigan Madman’ would be on his way!
Just the blink of an eye after E.J. has eased the Widowmaker off of that rear wheel stand.
Potter, whose early career paralleled that of another motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, toured the country in the 1960s and ’70s, when many drag-strip exhibitions featured racers known for building their own vehicles and for taking extreme risks. Like Knievel, Potter made a niche for himself as a motorcycle daredevil and showman.
“Usually, a guy went for the fastest time on the track, or he tried to win the competition for the highest speed clocked that day,” said Roger Meiners, a motor sports journalist and photographer when interviewed for Potter’s obituary. “E.J. wasn’t looking to win anything. He just showed up and tried to make people go, “Oh, my God!”
So many people were doing just that and were so impressed that E.J. soon didn’t have to continually hit the high numbers anymore. After all it was the explosive smoking starts that were the big attraction. On any given night, he would make three passes at $150 a run, which was how many he could make before the rear tyre blew out. But at $450 for a night's work in the 1960s, E.J. could afford a tyre or two. Back then the folks paying to sit in the bleachers to watch him perform may well have been thankful to get that in a month.
The 1960s Widowmaker had telescopic forks and a newer 5.7 liter (350ci) V8 Chevvy motor
Somewhat surprisingly, Potter was seriously injured only twice: first in 1966, when he broke his pelvis in a crash of his V8 bike in an exhibition run in England and again in 1971, when he sustained multiple bone fractures after being forced to jump from his later jet-powered Widowmaker trike (below) at 120mph when the braking parachute failed to open.
In 1973, when the Widowmaker was in the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest bike in the world at the end of a 170mph quarter mile, he quit drag racing and took up competitive tractor pulling. He did it in typical ‘Michigan Madman’ style, first using an ex-World War II V12 Allison aircraft engine from a Mustang fighter, to give his tractor the necessary power to drag around the massive concrete slab that is the focus of the sport. and later switching to twin V8 dragster engines with his aptly named ‘Double Trouble’.
E.J. with his Allison V12 engined tractor. The motor was from a WWII Mustang fighter!
E.J. pulling hard with 'Double Trouble' - so called because it had two V8 dragster engines.
In an interview in the 1980s, Potter was asked to compare himself with Evel Knievel, his more famous counterpart. “The difference between me and him,” he said, “was that he got paid to say he was going to do stuff, whether he did it or not. I got paid to actually do stuff.”
I got an up-close look at him doing his stuff when he came to the Santa Pod drag strip in England in 1966 (writes Bruce Cox) – in particular, an unforgettable look at his unique starting technique. As a young writer and photographer back then I was just a few feet from that spinning rear wheel as E.J. eased the bike off the stand. As blast off happened I don’t remember the kind of smoky start one usually sees in photographs of the Widowmaker. Rather the tire got more traction instead of breaking loose into the usual acceleration-sapping wheelspin and the bike took off like the proverbial bat out of hell, putting all its power to the ground. It headed at high speed on a shallow diagonal course towards the left-hand Armco barrier with E.J. still on the gas and trying to ride out the swerve and straighten up the bike by shifting his body weight. About 100 yards out, the almost inevitable happened, The bike hit the guard rail and E.J. was on his way to the hospital. It had been a short ride but one imprinted indelibly on my memory. And that was ‘the Michigan i sMadman’ personified. Once seen and never forgotten! Finally, as testimony to his fame, consider the fact that on his death he warranted a lengthy obituary in the New York Times - the farm boy from Michigan had come a long way, albeit with the aid of two wheels and a Chevvy V8!
The Widowmaker now has pride of place in the Museum of Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska and has obviously been rebuilt, updated and cosmetically enhanced. You can be sure that the bike never looked like this back when E.J. was doing his stuff on dragstrips across the nation. Nevertheless, as an eye-catching piece of motorcycle sculpture it stands as fitting monument to the memory of its creator: E.J. Potter - the Michigan Madman...